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U.S.: Past Imperfect -- U.S. Strives To Correct Its Grave Injustices (Part 8)

  • Andrew Tully

Americans may be proud of their political system, but there are aspects of their history they would prefer to forget, such as keeping blacks in slavery, denying women the right to vote, and driving American Indians from the land on which they had lived for centuries. Americans have faced up to these wrongs with varying degrees of sincerity and success.

Washington, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In May, a jury in Birmingham, Alabama, convicted an elderly white man of helping set a bomb that killed four black girls in a church four decades ago.

The racially motivated attack occurred in 1963, at the height of America's civil rights movement -- a campaign to ensure that descendants of black slaves would be brought fully into the nation's mainstream.

Seventy-one-year-old Bobby Frank Cherry -- once a member of the white supremacist group known as the Ku Klux Klan -- was convicted on 22 May and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the bombing.

After the verdict, attorney Doug Jones, who prosecuted the case, said American justice is not deterred by the passage of time. "This verdict today sends a message that's important today -- [to] the people that bomb and kill our innocent citizens and children, we will never give up."

This has not always been the case. American Indians, who lived in North America long before Europeans settled on the continent, were the victims of broad injustices that, historically, have only recently been addressed.

Europeans regarded American Indians as "savages," according to Alan Lichtman, a professor of U.S. history at American University in Washington, D.C. Lichtman told RFE/RL that the Europeans who originally settled North America often sought to promote what they called enlightened Christianity, and that American Indians were looked at as an obstacle to this cause. "Native American culture was foreign to the Europeans. They seemed to be of a different race and, of course, they were not Christian -- they were heathen. And that was fundamental to the perception [of American Indians by] the Europeans as [being] an obstacle to the advancement of enlightened Christianity."

This belief helped to justify the Europeans' decisions to drive the American Indians off land the Europeans wanted. In the late 1830s, for example, the U.S. Congress ordered the mass displacement of nearly the entire nation of Cherokee Indians to western regions that were then outside the United States. During this forced march of 14,000 American Indians -- now known as the "Trail of Tears" -- an estimated 4,000 died from hunger, cold, and disease.

Eventually, as the U.S. pushed its borders westward, American Indians were again driven out of desirable lands. By the end of the 19th century, they were relegated to vast, often barren, tracts of land known as "reservations."

More than 250 years earlier on the continent, in the beginning of the 17th century, the British-controlled colonies employed slaves from West Africa, brought to the New World primarily to work the farm fields.

The northern colonies eventually outlawed slavery, but the practice persisted in the South, even after the country achieved its independence and drew up a constitution that has become a model for promoting justice and equality. Slavery became one of the chief reasons for the American Civil War between the northern and southern states from 1861 to 1865, which eventually freed blacks from bondage.

But freedom did not mean equality for blacks in the U.S. Most of them had no education, and no employment skills beyond field work, beginning a vicious cycle of poverty.

Because most slaves had been kept in America's southern states, most stayed there after emancipation. As recently as the 1950s, blacks in those states were segregated from white society. They could not eat at the same restaurants as whites, use the same public toilets or drinking fountains, stay in the same hotels or attend the same schools.

On 1 December 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks decided she had had enough of segregation in Montgomery -- the same city where the four black girls would be killed in the church bombing eight years later. Parks was asked to give up her seat on a public bus to a white passenger, as required by local law. She refused.

This act of defiance symbolizes for many Americans the beginning of the civil rights movement. Historians say it began two decades earlier, however. Lichtman, of American University, says it was inspired in the 1930s with President Franklin Roosevelt's so-called New Deal. The New Deal was a series of government programs designed to pull America out of the Great Depression through ambitious employment programs. "While Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal did not have a civil rights program, it nonetheless brought a new governmental activism to the country, which aroused hopes among many African-Americans that that activism could be extended to breaking down segregation."

This hope turned to determination during World War II. Black Americans fighting beside their white countrymen against Nazi German oppression in Europe developed a growing awareness of the inequality they faced in their own homeland, according to Leo Ribuffo, a professor of history at George Washington University in Washington.

After the war, blacks needed the help of white Americans because whites controlled every aspect of the nation's society. So it was not until Parks' act of defiance -- and the news coverage it attracted -- that some whites around the country began to come to terms with the discrimination they had been inflicting on blacks.

Until then, according to both Lichtman and Ribuffo, white Americans had been largely oblivious to how they were treating blacks because blacks and whites usually lived separately. Even American schools glossed over the inequalities, particularly in the way they taught the nation's history. Ribuffo says, "If you go back and you look at [history] textbooks from the early '60s and '50s -- Jesus, are they embarrassing -- [you find] references to happy slaves."

Congress eventually responded to the increasing demands from Americans -- black and white -- that blacks be granted equality. In 1964, it passed the Civil Rights Act, which broadly forbids discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or national origin. The next year it passed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed many restrictions that southern states had imposed to keep blacks from voting. That followed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, which finally gave women the right to vote.

Until the civil rights movement, blacks, Native Americans, and other minorities were largely as absent from white-run American media as they were from white neighborhoods. Or, if they did appear, they were often portrayed as inferior, or -- in the case of Native Americans -- as enemies of European settlers. Eventually, however, as the film and television industries began recognizing that minorities were becoming more accepted in mainstream culture, they began casting more substantial roles for them.

But achieving widespread acceptance in U.S. society was difficult. Civil rights demonstrators often were met with police violence. Some political leaders vowed never to allow state schools to admit blacks. And white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan at times tried to intimidate blacks by subjecting them to terrorism, such as the bombing of the church in Birmingham.

This resistance of the white power structure in the South was widely reported in the country's news media, and many Americans became increasingly supportive of the blacks' cause. Television and magazines that featured film and photographs of the movement made the struggle particularly vivid.

Ribuffo says the leading media of any era have always been influential in causing social change. For example, he said the 1852 novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which portrayed the grim lives of American slaves, helped galvanize the country's antislavery movement. Modern newspapers and particularly television 100 years later helped the blacks' civil rights movement. "Whatever the dominant form of media at the time is is going to affect perceptions. In the North, television made it vivid."

Once the black civil rights movement showed results, other groups -- particularly Native Americans -- became emboldened to press for their own civil rights, with similar results. Lichtman says the Indians, as well as other groups seeking social change in America, owe a great debt to the leaders of the black civil rights movement. "The Indian rights movement, the environmental movement, the women's rights movement -- virtually every one of them was fundamentally influenced by the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement really broke down barriers to grass-roots activism and gave hope that such activism could lead to success -- that the establishment that had seemed so rigid for so many decades really could change."

Ribuffo says it is not surprising that so many Americans sincerely supported the civil rights movement and other calls for change. He says it is part of the country's culture to keep the promise of its founders: that all men are created equal. "The United States is more likely internally to search after its past errors and crimes than other countries. Americans are perfectionists in that sense and we want to correct past errors. And one step toward that is recognizing them."

Such perfectionism is built into the American political system, says Matthew Spalding, an analyst of government issues at the Heritage Foundation, an independent policy research center in Washington. He says this is how the United States could begin its history permitting pre-existing slavery but was destined to abolish the practice. "What American history is is a development of and a proper application of the principles of the founding, which ultimately destroyed slavery."

Thanks to the civil rights movements on behalf of both blacks and Native Americans, both groups have made major steps toward joining the American mainstream. There are many prominent blacks in business, academia, and politics, and -- just as important -- many more blacks have joined whites in middle-class America.

While many Native Americans still live on reservations, some tribes or nations are making the most of their lands' autonomy by passing laws permitting the licensing of gambling casinos, which have brought new wealth to their people.

Still, the analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say that for all their gains, blacks, Indians, and other minorities in the United States still have not achieved complete parity with the American descendants of European immigrants. In fact, many still live in poverty.

As a result, the civil rights movement goes on today. Not only have prosecutors refused to give up on decades-old hate crimes like the church bombing in Alabama, but the government also continues to support programs that seek to help blacks, Indians, and other minorities out of poverty. One such program is known as "affirmative action," in which some government agencies and private organizations give preferential treatment to minorities in hiring and educational placement.

Ribuffo says it is realistic that the cycle of poverty among blacks and Indians cannot be ended immediately, and that not all white Americans have shed their prejudices. But he says he expects their causes will continue to progress in the years to come because their most daunting hurdle is gone: There are no longer overt supporters of segregation and other racist practices in Congress or in any state government.

According to Ribuffo, virtually anything is possible in America through political determination.